Bavinck: A Critical Biography: Eglinton, James: 9781540961358:  Books

Dr. James Eglinton has a great new critical biography out on Herman Bavinck. I sought his expertise to answer a gnawing question about Bavinck’s views on women. He graciously obliged. Here is my question, followed by his response:

It can be difficult reading a theologian whom you learn so much from and hold in high regard, and coming across their views on women. I’ve had this experience with Bavinck, devastated to read these words: “the woman must wrestle continually against her deficiency in logic that is manifested both in rigid tenacity and incorrigible willfulness, as well as in a fickleness that defies every form of argument.” But your critical biography reveals that is not the view of women that Bavinck ended his life with. How did his views on women change, why don’t we read much about that now, and how did it affect what Bavinck advocated for women later in his life?

Bavinck, Women, and The Christian Family

In his later years, and in his own cultural setting, the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was noted as a public advocate for women’s participation in society, and for open equal access to education for girls. The mature Bavinck spoke regularly at women’s conferences, shared platforms with women speakers, and published books on the changing role of women in society. My recent book, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, charts how his mature views on this topic developed rapidly against the backdrop of the First World War. During that War, millions of young men had been killed, leaving a generation of young women with no realistic prospect of marriage or motherhood, and a labour market now missing millions of workers. At short notice, a society based on the family unit had to reimagine itself as a society of individuals, in which an increasing number of single women was joining the work force. Although Bavinck’s more famous colleague Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) struggled to see how Christianity could be reconciled to this newly reimagined society, Bavinck thought that the Christian faith could indeed advance—albeit not easily—into a world where women functioned as individuals.

The Christian Family

Through the biography, Bavinck’s readers now have access not only to this part of his story, but also to the role played by his wife, Johanna Bavinck-Schippers (1868-1942)—a talented and industrious woman who played an important public role in the Dutch Christian women’s movement, and co-founded the journal Christianity and the Women’s Movement. However, while that particular part of his story—that of the mature Bavinck and his dynamic wife—went untold for Bavinck’s international audience until last year, his English-language readership has had access to one of his earlier works dealing with Christianity and women, The Christian Family, since 2012. That particular book was first written in 1908, before the First World War shook European society to its core and forced the reimagination of social roles for men and women. As such, it represents a stage in his thought on women in society that later underwent considerable revision due to the cataclysmic effects of the War: for one obvious example, when writing in that book, Bavinck towed his Christian political party’s line (the Anti-Revolutionary Party) on voting rights being allocated to husband-led families, rather than individuals. Under that system, which was an early form of mass democracy, a woman was seen as represented by the particular family unit of which she was a part, although her husband would always cast a vote on her behalf. (It is worth noting that that system had considerable popular support in the early 20th century Netherlands.) After the First World War, Bavinck publicly gave up on that view, even making a memorable speech in parliament in support of individual voting rights for Dutch women.

Gender-typical thinking?

For some readers today, some statements on women in The Christian Family can make for uncomfortable reading, particularly when read without a careful eye to context, or quoted atomistically. In that book, it is clear that Bavinck held to then commonplace views on the existence of typically ‘male’ and ‘female’ modes of reasoning: women, he thought, tend to rely on sensory impressions, and think in visual categories rather than by more abstract analysis; whereas he believed men tended towards a cold, detached logical reasoning that was less grounded in the real world. Women, he believed, are more patient and relational, and men are worse at handling suffering, and so on. Applied to religion and morality, he argued that men tend towards legalistic, performance-based instincts, whereas women approach the same with a more vibrant sense of piety and joy. Left to their own devices, he thought, men reduce religion to notions of abstract justice, and women, to notions of love.

Two expressions of the same human nature

In that phase of life, Bavinck argued that men and women share in the same generic human nature, but that this nature is typically expressed differently in each—which he believed makes their approaches and contributions to ‘morality, religion, and science’ different. Crucially, though, he argued that they bring balance to each other in each of these spheres. (When arguing in support of women’s enfranchisement in 1917, he carried on this line of reasoning: women and men should both get to vote because they are equal and different, and politics needs a balance of both male and female voices.) In the absence of that balance, both sets of ‘typical’ forms of reasoning and imagining will quickly become misshapen and unhealthy. In that context, then, Bavinck presented a warning against this ‘typically male brain’ when it falls out of step with, and ignores, its need for a female counterbalance: ‘The man must struggle against forcing his principles and pressing upon others every possible consequence’. (Or stated differently, men must stop themselves from damaging the real world by thinking and acting in a way that privileges abstract reasoning, and that neglects life in the real world, and the relationships that exist within it.) Following this, he then issued an equivalent warning to the ‘typically female brain’ that ignores its own counterbalance: ‘The woman must wrestle continually against her deficiency in logic that is manifested both in rigid tenacity and incorrigible wilfulness, as well as fickleness that defies every form of argument.’

Bavinck’s willingness to deal in general gendered stereotypes—in this specific example, that men are prone to unprincipled pragmatism, and women, to stubbornness—was normal in his own day, and marks him out as a man of the early twentieth, rather than of the early twenty-first, century. Of course, the question of whether such ‘typically male and female’ mental instincts do indeed exist lies far beyond the scope of this short post, and perhaps needs some input from neurobiologists and psychologists.

What, though, should we do with this particular line on the female ‘deficiency in logic’? In context, of course, he was describing what he saw as a lack of a distinct kind of ‘typically male’ logic (i.e. logic of the detached, pragmatic sort, which he argued was a generally male, rather than female, trait), and as such, his argument here was not that women are simply unintelligent or generally illogical. Rather, his argument in that particular book was that women possess a distinct kind of intelligence that is both needed by men, who also possess their own particular sort of intelligence, and that needs the counterbalance provided by the male imagination. In the same book, he levels scathing criticism of what he perceived to be disordered masculinity as marked by infidelity, incommunicativeness, given to dead orthodoxy and unbelief, and coarse indifference, concluding that, ‘man and woman have nothing to hold against each other. Each has quite glorious virtues and each has rather serious defects. There is room for neither disparagement nor deification with respect to either of them.’

Women in the academy

In this pre-World War One book, Bavinck presupposed that women were contributing to the academy, and that the academy needed female voices. In his own life experience, that point was not simply hypothetical: three years before, in 1905, he had supported Segrina ’t Hooft, the first woman to register as a student at the Free University of Amsterdam. Her admittance set Bavinck in considerable tension with Abraham Kuyper, who allowed women to audit classes but not to be registered officially as students. Another of their colleagues, the ethicist Willem Geesink, had previously spoken in public of his “heartfelt wish that the Free University might always be protected from the defeminizing of the woman and may never bear the shame of the symptoms of madness of the woman who thinks she has the intellect of a man.” Needless to say, Geesink was probably not best pleased that Bavinck voted in favour of ’t Hooft’s admittance to study law.

While there is a certain sense in which The Christian Family does not represent the entirety of Bavinck’s views in the years that follow World War One (with his shift on voting rights for women as an obvious example), it is also probably true that a careless reading of it risks presenting the book, dated as it may be, in a way that misrepresents his pre-War views. Before the War, he had already accepted, ambivalently at first, that the transformation to a society of individuals was inevitable, and he certainly did not share Geesink’s views that women were unsuitable for university study on account of being “less intelligent” than men. Rather, the theological foundation for his support of Segrina ’t Hooft’s admittance as a university student was based in a view of the imago Dei as expressed in the diversity of humanity, also with regard to differences between male and female, neither of which, he argued, can express that image fully on its own.

The Woman in Contemporary Society: Bavinck’s mature view

If The Christian Family is useful in understanding a stage of Bavinck’s development, but should not be taken as the final word, where should we turn in looking for something like a settled final statement of his views on women in society? For that, Bavinck himself provides a source, although one that is as yet untranslated: The Woman in Contemporary Society (1918), a book written as a rebuttal of Kuyper’s criticisms following Bavinck’s public support of women’s voting rights. Written as the First World War drew to a close, it is a good example of the trepidation with which Bavinck looked into the remainder of the twentieth century: the War had decimated European society and forced it to reimagine itself in painful circumstances, which would certainly lead to difficult times for men and women alike. He argued that women certainly were capable of stepping up to the plate in joining the workforce, but alongside this, he argued that the biological urge to motherhood would not go away, nor would the physiological differences that he thought made (intensive industrial revolution-era) work better suited to male physiology. Bavinck could not imagine, for example, how a woman could combine the all-consuming callings that were career and motherhood. If anything, the take home message in The Woman in Contemporary Society might be paraphrased as: you can have a family, or you can have a career, but having both will be exceedingly difficult. A century on, some contemporary readers will view his argument as outdated. Nonetheless, it is true that twenty first century Western culture still struggles to find a smooth solution to the challenges Bavinck highlighted in dual-career marriage and parenthood.

James P. Eglinton is the Meldrum Senior Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Baker, 2020), and Trinity and Organism (Bloomsbury, 2012). He edited and translated Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers (Hendrickson, 2017), co-edited and co-translated Christian Worldview (Crossway, 2019), and co-edited Neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution (Bloomsbury, 2012).

You can purchase his book, Bavinck: A Critical Biography here.